When I was a high school English teacher, we used to have discussions during which I tested whether the students could analyze ideas and defend their opinions. I always held truth as most important to persuasion. I would try to teach students to identify logical fallacies, but people are astoundingly dense when listening to poorly constructed arguments. They tend to agree with what they want to hear, even if what they want to hear verges on ludicrous.
One of the metaphysical speculations I liked to pose was to ask students if there was such a thing as a “good” lie. It was one of the few questions that really got them thinking, probably because all of us have, at one time or another, told a lie and then tried to convince ourselves or others that it was a good lie.
The conversation would necessarily begin with foolish but ready-at-hand examples of lies they themselves had told and then come to justify. “If someone asks me if an outfit looks good, I’ll say it does when it doesn’t.” Eventually we would get into higher stakes situations, things that test the metal of the dangers of lying. These discussions always brought out the finer points of language and reasoning, of manners and habits, of values and honor. Near the end of the discussion, I would put forth the argument that all lies are bad. They do exist. They are omnipresent. They are sometimes small, and seemingly insignificant. Still, all lies are bad.
The ones I should have made students consider more were the most dangerous lies of all, the lies we tell ourselves. My examples come from the astonishing story of Corrie Ten Boom’s life titled The Hiding Place. For those who have not read this book, go get it. Read it. In the book Corrie deals with the question of lies in the most clear-eyed way I have ever read. I will not go into all the ways she explores lies. She really does some important battles with them. The one lie that she spends little time on is the one that she must forgive most completely, and it is the one that is perhaps the most damaging that happened during the Third Reich. Near the end of the book, the Dutch women imprisoned by the Nazi’s in Holland are sent to a concentration camp in rural Germany. As they march through the countryside, they pass farm families with little children. The children watch the women openly, the way children will, but the adults turn away their eyes. Most Christians would be reminded of the story of the Good Samaritan.
These people, people going about what they would consider good and honorable lives, could not bring themselves to see what was happening right there, right in their community. They couldn’t stand it, so they tried not to see it, but the longer they lied to themselves, the longer evil was allowed free and violent reign. Time told. The regime fell, and all those little families had to face a truth that loaded the rest of their days and their nation with shame.
When the discussion about lies inevitably came back into the classroom, I would tell the students about one of my favorite characters in literature and what he had to say about lies. Joe Gargery, a black smith in the Dickens’ Classic Great Expectations, explains to the main character Pip what he needs to know about lies. ‘”There’s one thing you may be sure of, Pip,’ said Joe, after some rumination, ‘namely, that lies is lies. Howsever[sic] they come, they didn’t ought to come, and they come from the father of lies, and work round to the same. Don’t you tell no more of ’em, Pip. That ain’t the way to get out of being common, old chap.'” I’ve never heard a more simple, good, wise, and reassuring assessment of lies.
The truth can be a heavy burden, a strict standard, a hard climb, but it is also a light and a promise. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32) And, I pray that when I face the truth I will be brave enough to cling to it. I also pray when I am hurt by a lie, I have the goodness and sympathy to forgive.